Reading Comprehension: Teaching Second Language Learners


christine humphrey blog author
Christine Humphrey

Sometimes, the most difficult things to teach are the things you’re good at. Reading comprehension is one of those things for me. A friend once said I had a desperate need to understand things, so it’s in my nature to ask questions and analyze.

Combined with my love of reading, this was always an area I scored well in and understood on an innate level. So, when EF recently modified tests with a bigger emphasis on comprehension, I had to think carefully about how to help my students succeed in something that I knew how to do — but didn’t really know how to teach.

Comprehension is closely tied to understanding, and it is a skill that needs to be practised as well as taught. I quickly realized it wasn’t just about explaining it to my students and giving them tips, but also making sure they had plenty of opportunities to use and practice the skill — in a variety of different way

Comprehension isn’t just for reading

In class, it’s important to find — or create — opportunities to practice comprehension. It’s also a skill they can practice in their native language that could benefit their foreign-language learning. In fact, if a child struggles in comprehension but not other areas, it’s probably not a language issue at all, but shows the need to develop their critical thinking skills more!

Remember that comprehension is a transferable skill, used in a variety of areas. Comprehension can be a part of listening activities, with videos or songs, and explaining new concepts.

Ask questions

A common theme in suggested reading comprehension strategies is to ask questions. A person with strong reading comprehension will do this as they read, but it is something that can be taught. You can start by asking the questions as a teacher, but over time, work on developing and encouraging the kids to ask questions themselves.

One thing I like to do is have “Quiz Show” style games after something with a story — whether it’s a reading or a video or a listening activity. Take it to the next level by having the students create the questions themselves!

Not every word is important

Comprehension doesn’t mean students understand EVERYTHING they read, but they should know the big ideas. If a student doesn’t know a word — it might be okay, but they should use strategies to “figure out” words they don’t know if they’re necessary to understanding that big idea. This includes using context clues, finding synonyms or opposites, or looking at pictures that might accompany the text.

Explain, Don't translate

I’ve already mentioned how comprehension can be practised in both native and foreign languages. If a student is using both languages, it’s important for them to be using their own words and not trying to directly translate the story. In China, this can be a hard concept to grasp, because of the cultural emphasis placed on memorization, but it’s particularly important due to the wildly different grammar structures.

Think about the reading

Comprehension is thinking about the reading, and not everyone thinks or learns in the same way. While comprehension is often tested by reading a text and answering questions about it, there are different ways to get students to think about what they’ve read! Having them draw pictures, perform it, read out loud, continue a story or do additional research can all help students think about their reading and understand a text better. This practice may make it easier for them to "find" the answers when it is time for a test.

Ask why an answer is “the” answer

Critical thinking and comprehension are closely tied skills. Whether a question is open-ended, multiple choice or even just yes or no, prompting students for “why” they chose their answer offers important practice and can help them develop a habit to think critically when working independently. I’ve sometimes directed students to underline and number the section of the test with the question it answers. If they struggle to find a reason for an answer, they may be able self-correct by finding the right reason!

Questions first and last

One “trick” to test with an emphasis on reading (or listening!) comprehension is to read the questions first, before reading or listening to the text that the questions are about. This can help the reader know what to “look” for. In an EFL class, it also gives the students the opportunity to make sure they understand the questions! Reading the questions again, after the text, can help prevent mistakes as well.

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